Exit bebop, hello jungle

Once 60-something bebop drummer Dick Gail heard his first electronic drum and bass recording, he knew he’d found the next thing beyond jazz

Dick Gail with what’s either a futuristic drum set or the business end of an extraterrestrial robotic octopus tentacle.

Dick Gail with what’s either a futuristic drum set or the business end of an extraterrestrial robotic octopus tentacle.

Photo by Larry Dalton

As a rule, professional musicians usually stick with one instrument. Sure saxophonists will switch between tenor and alto, and maybe to clarinet. A drummer might play various percussion instruments. And, under duress, a guitarist might pick up a bass guitar.

But rarely do you hear of a professional musician, especially a jazz drummer, trade in his kit for a hand-held controller and rack filled with mixers, equalizers, emulators and digital effects that are usually found only in recording studios. What is even more rare is a 63-year-old grandfather onstage playing bass and drums at all-night techno parties.

Dick Gail, who looks and sounds like the quintessential jazz musician, was born in Boston to immigrant parents. Gail’s father came from Portugal, while his mother came from Italy. Music was a big part of their household. Gail’s mother once studied piano at the Boston Conservatory of Music.

“My mother played classical piano,” Gail recalls, “but she played on like on a Sunday morning, she had the sauce on for Sunday dinner and she’d sit down and play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and stuff like that. She could have been a great pianist, but she lost her mother and father when she was 13 years old, so she and her sisters and brother were waifs, man, and it really affected them. So music was a big thing with her.”

On the paternal side, Gail’s grandfather made sure that his sons studied music. Gail’s father John played a superb trumpet, and he and his brother Armond, who played trombone, were first-call players back in the union days, working throughout the Boston area.

“My dad could read toilet paper and play it,” Gail remembers. “But my mother’s brother was the one that became famous. My uncle Tony worked with the Dorsey Brothers. He made some movies with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. So on Christmas holiday when Uncle Tony would come home from wherever he was, he’d always grab anybody in the band that didn’t have any family. I was surrounded by that, and to this day, I go to hear somebody and if they’re playing flat, put a bag over his fuckin’ head! Everybody else will be saying, ‘Jesus, isn’t he a wonderful trumpet player,’ and I say to myself, that fucking guy isn’t in tune! I don’t care what he’s playin’!”

Gail left home in 1957 at age 18 to play drums with Roy Liberto and the Bourbon Street All Stars, which Gail describes as a cross between Louie Prima and Louis Armstrong, playing month-long engagements at such Greenwich Village nightclubs as the Metropole and Nick’s; they also toured throughout the Eastern Seaboard. After two years playing Dixieland jazz, Gail moved on to his first love, bebop, and spent the next 40 years on the road with such jazz luminaries as Bull Moose Jackson (“Big Ten Inch Record,” “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me?”), the Crests (“Sixteen Candles”), Ruth Brown (“Mama He Treat Your Daughter Mean,” “Teardrops From My Eyes”), Tina Brown, Pat Martino, Eddie McFadden, Russell “Big Chief” Moore, Eric Kloss, Dakota Staton and Joe Borland, to name a few. After 40 years of playing jazz and hard bop, Gail felt that it was time for a change.

“Because there hasn’t been anything new or exciting to play on since the ’50s and ’60s, I got bored playing the same old songs with new musicians that had to read everything onstage,” says Gail.

Gail spent the ’80s and ’90s living in San Francisco, playing drums and operating an antique furniture-repair business. While in San Francisco, Gail started haunting electronic shows, standing in corners every week for six months, amazed with the rhythms, samples and breakneck beats coming from the young techno scene.

“What I wanted to do is take all that bebop shit and move it over here,” says Gail, “because now I don’t want to play bebop. If I wanted to play bebop, I’d still be playing drums.”

No stranger to the avant-garde, Gail at one time played his drums through an Echoplex (an early tape-delay system) and holds a patent on an inflatable pitch bender for drumheads. He started buying mixers and electronic equipment and switched from drums to a hand-held controller.

“So I thought, man, I want to play some scratch samples because they’re interesting,” says Gail. “Record scratching has rhythm to it, and I thought if I could get some of that stuff. So I decided to Bogart my way into some collective. I decided to go to the Space Travellers [aka the Bulletproof Scratch Hamsters], because they were made up of all Latin cats. I figured if I went to the Latin cats, I don’t have to convince them about Latin music; I could use that as a contact.”

Along the way, Gail met, performed with, and was influenced by numerous Northern California DJs and such electronic artists as DJs Cue, Marz, Quest, Apollo, Laird, UFO, Mei-Lwun, Felix-the-Dog, Clockwork and Forest-Green. Gail is also a member of the San Francisco collective Groundscore and the Sacramento collective Naughty Vibes.

“The people that I’ve surrounded myself with [now] are DJs and electronic musicians,” says Gail. “I think that they are leading the entire world in the new music that they are experimenting with. It’s like the birth of bebop in the 1940s.”

During the last 10 years, Dick Gail has appeared on MTV’s The Last Word and on the Discovery Channel’s One Step Beyond. He has performed at the Cotati Jazz Festival, the Benicia Jazz Festival, the Eddie Moore Jazz Festival and at Yoshi’s in Oakland. In the last three years, Gail has done over 40 clinics and has been featured at the last nine NAMM shows in Los Angeles.

Because of his long career as a working musician and his innovative electronic drum and bass style, Gail started, sometimes accidentally, being asked to endorse equipment. He’s currently “Artist in House” for Cerwin-Vega Speaker Systems and is an exclusive endorser of all E-MU, Lexicon, Monster Cable, Rane, Mackie, Cadence Cases, Sonic Foundry and Fellowes products.

“[One company] gave me this stuff under two conditions,” says Gail. “I can never sell it, I can never give it away and I can keep it for the rest of my life, but if I decide that I want to get rid of it, I have to give it back to them. I said, ‘OK, fine, man.’ ”

Gail moved to the Sacramento area two years ago and thinks the world of his new hometown.I think Sacramento has a bigger underground movement than probably anywhere on the West Coast,” Gail opines. “Sacramento has got a huge underground electronic music scene. I think that DJ Riff is one of the best drum and bass/jungle DJs in the country.”

Gail has a song, “Eklektik Groove,” on Cue’s Hip Hop Shop Vol. 2 (Dogday/Stray Records), and he’s recorded a rhythm track for the drum-and-bass artist UFO. He’s currently interested in starting an improvised big-band hip-hop group with a revolving group of musicians, hoping to team up with some scratchers, singers, tenor sax, trumpet and a live drummer.

“The cream of everything that I’m playin’ is drum and bass,” says Gail. “Drum and bass is God speaking.”

At an age when most people are happy to be playing with their grandchildren, Gail wants to play the music of his grandchildren. He looks forward to meeting young musicians with fresh ideas.

“What I’m doing now with all that advanced rhythm composition that I have in my head is applying that to this whole new electronic medium,” says Gail. “Ninety percent of people that are into this are either keyboard players or computer nuts. There are very few drummers, but the drummers who get involved in it take it to another place, because we think of everything as based off of rhythms.”

What does Gail think of jazz elitists and musicians who put limits on their imagination? “People,” says Gail, “whether you’re trying to build the first airplane like the Wright brothers, or if you invented the fucking Model T Ford, it doesn’t make any difference, ’cause when you do something that nobody else has done before, you run into all this negative energy and all these people who try to convince you that you aren’t shit, so they’ll feel better.”

Dick Gail is playing at DJ Riff’s Wednesday night shows at the Press Club throughout the month of September. Gail is also interested in working in a nightclub or art-gallery context.

“When you’re going 183 [beats per minute] you have to be on it or it’s fucking wrong,” says Gail. “There’s no waiting for you to catch up and find out where it is or any of that shit.”